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Janov residents petition Czech PM over "gypsies"

7.3.2015 0:10, (ROMEA)
The Janov housing estate in Litvínov, where Romani residents have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by the local authority, local media, local police and social workers, property owners and ultra-right political groups for almost a decade. (PHOTO:  Google Maps)
The Janov housing estate in Litvínov, where Romani residents have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by the local authority, local media, local police and social workers, property owners and ultra-right political groups for almost a decade. (PHOTO: Google Maps)

Residents of the Janov housing estate in the town of Litvínov who are calling themselves the "decent majority" have sent a petition to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. The residents are asking the state to aggressively intervene in their neighborhood.

The petitioners allege that the assimilation of ethnic Romani people into the housing estate is simply not working and that the "gypsies" are doing drugs, loitering around the apartment buildings in such a way that "decent people" are afraid to walk past them, setting apartments on fire, and stealing.  The signatories of the petition claim they "are not racists", but insist that they see what they see.

They also claim to be concerned that a "small-scale civil war" might take place there similar to the one that occurred in 2008 and say they suspect matters are heading in that direction. The Czech News Agency reports that the chair of the Krušnohor housing cooperative, František Ryba, who initiated the petition, characterizes that "small-scale civil war" as follows:  "Back then fathers carried their children on their shoulders to go protest against this problem and were met in Janov by mounted riot police with water cannon because radicals might be involved, but there were several hundred decent, ordinary people there who just wanted to show that they didn't want to live this way any longer."

What is interesting is that this characterization of those events is very similar to those described in the Mostecký deník daily back in 2008 shortly after that "small-scale civil war" broke out. That daily printed an article by a member of the ultra-right Workers' Party (DS) who had participated in that march, Jiří Šlégr, with the headline "How police beat children and pensioners:  Reportage by a participant in the march on Janov".

The Editor-in-Chief of that daily was later quoted in the RESPEKT weekly's 18 May 2009 edition as saying the following:  "I naturally do not believe that piece. It was a hectic time. We didn't know what to do. Today we would think better of running it." It seems the "decent residents" of Janov, however, continue to believe that state gunmen are defending "gypsies" against justified protests convened by members of the majority society.

A big or a small civil war?

In 2008, Janov experienced what was the most brutal event since 1989 organized by the ultra-right to target Romani people. At the same time, many sympathizers from the ranks of "normal" citizens did, in fact, join that demonstration.  

These citizens generated an image that was no longer surprising when we saw it repeated three years later in the towns of Rumburk, Šluknov, and Varnsdorf. However, it is important to separate the propaganda coming in from all sides from the facts.

At Janov in 2008 there was a clash between several hundred right-wing extremists and riot police. The radicals threw bottles, cobblestones and rocks at police and tried to lead their march away from the route they had announced to authorities.

Local non-Romani citizens really did urge them on, both by shouting from their windows and joining them down in the street. "Who are you protecting here? Those dirty gypsies? You're supposed to protect us, our taxes pay your salaries," RESPEKT reporters described a 50-year-old man shouting from the window of an apartment bloc at Janov that evening (RESPEKT, 24 November 2008).  

The notion of a clash between "Daddies with children on their backs" and gunmen protecting "gypsies" is a myth. It is right-wing extremist propaganda.

On the other hand, it would of course also be naive propaganda to claim that there are no problems at the Janov housing estate. It is clear that many local Romani people there are in trouble "up to their necks" - they are in debt, under the thumb of local mafias, on the road to prison, desperate, resigned, without money and without future prospects.

Janov is a ghetto, with all that entails, and it is not in the least surprising that people don't want to live there. Even the "gypsies" don't.

What is to be done? Will it aid matters if we isolate Janov, help the "decent" people move away, and leave the rest to be tended to by police?

Or should we move all the "gypsies" out of town? Out of the other ghettos too?

Perhaps we should put them all in concentration camps? Aren't we actually heading toward a slightly bigger "civil war" here, not just a conflict over one housing estate?

Where do ghettos come from?

Shortly after the clashes at Janov in 2008, experts agreed that a clear concept and vision for addressing this issue was required. They also agreed that these problems were on the way to becoming more dramatic.

"Just a couple of years ago, Janov was equally inhabited by non-Romani and Romani residents and there were only a few problems. Today the situation is a crisis," says Ivan Gabal, a sociologist who is the co-author of a map of socially excluded localities throughout the Czech Republic.

The ghetto took several years to come about, and it did so in a similar way to those in other towns:  The municipality sold off its apartment stock, and the new owners began to lease all of their new properties in a single location to low-income Romani people. The new owners offered their services to the landlords of lucrative apartment buildings in Prague who needed to get rid of their own unwelcome low-income Romani tenants, luring them into this less expensive housing.

Politicians, meanwhile, had lost any tools they might once have had for intervening against the creation of such ghettos - they no longer owned their own apartment stock, and they had no program for dealing with these developments. The companies who own the apartments at the Janov housing estate are part of the problem, even as they complain about the state it is in today.  

Certainly, the fact that a person moves into a different apartment in another town does not necessarily mean that person will suddenly begin to steal, or destroy the apartment, or bother the neighbors. Moving Romani people into ghettos, however, contributes to their further entrapment in the closed cycle of debt, poverty, and resignation.  

Most people in the ghettos will not get out of them without aid. Aggressive political action is genuinely needed in this regard.

Some of the basic features of that action may be forming now - a law on social housing is being drafted, and an amendment to the Schools Act has been adopted that will reduce the influence of the "practical primary schools" on Romani children. We will see whether all this is ultimately transformed into a clear policy.

The worst thing that could happen in this society is that the extremists of all sorts and the neo-Nazis will merge to an even greater extent with those "Daddies with children on their backs". Time is seriously running out to prevent that from happening. 

čon, mik, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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